We’ve heard this story dozens of times this year, the year before that one, going on for what feels like a generation: a schoolteacher is in the public discourse for apparently radicalizing students behind the backs of parents. Blast the trumpets, sharpen your rhetorical sticks, light your analytical torches, because a trusted educator has once again smuggled critical theory into the classroom, and, of course, written about it on Twitter.
Ok. It wasn’t a big reveal from @libsoftiktok, not this time. A very brief precis: Alastair Roberts, a conservative Christian theologian and writer adjacent to the Christian Nationalist sphere, pointed out, as part of his public engagement with Stephen Wolfe, a conservative Christian Nationalist public intellectual, the fact that the second man’s ideas were, essentially, a kind of right-wokeness: critical race theory for … white people.
In the course of showing the source and implication of these ideas, Roberts drew attention to a magazine article and Twitter thread by Wolfe’s intellectual collaborator, Thomas Achord. And then everything blew up.
Achord, in addition to his public project as a Christian seeking to do political-philosophical retrieval, was also the headmaster of a private Christian Classical school, and he was, by his own account, attempting to insert this CRT of the Right into the curriculum of that school. He was also revealed to be someone who habitually posted extraordinarily filthy racist content on Twitter, along with his reflections on white nationalist strategy and education. The school, finding out about the nature of this public project and the more crudely racist twitter alt, asked him to resign, which he did.
Achord initially denied everything. His many defenders then began attacking Roberts as the slanderer of an innocent man. When irrefutable proof was presented, Achord admitted that the account was his, and made a public semi-apology, claiming that he had posted the racist tweets in a kind of fugue state. Wolfe claimed that he did not know about the Twitter alt or the blatantly racist ideas of his colleague, and presented the whole event as an attempt to attack him through attacking a private man engaged in personal sin.
Once denied the possibility of attacking Roberts as the accuser of an innocent man, Achord and Wolfe’s defenders retreated to proceduralism: Roberts should have contacted Achord privately, to ask him to repent, rather than engage publicly. I’ll look at this claim carefully, but I’ll say this first: Our instinct is not to complain about proceduralism when, say, @libsoftiktok, etc., reveals the duplicitous actions of public school teachers to evangelize progressive ideologies behind the backs of parents. There are good reasons behind that instinct. It doesn’t cost credibility to reveal secret plots to radicalize children in schools against the will of their parents. In fact, as we all intuitively understand, there is a compelling public interest to do so, in a way that is not necessarily true of other misdeeds.
However, Roberts’ pointing out of Achord’s account did not relate to his work in the classroom. This discourse did not begin when the reactionary educator decided to bring critical theory into the classroom, or when he began to semi-anonymously blog about it on social media to energize and practically instruct the Christian Nationalist movement towards adopting a kind of CRT for white people stance. His unmasking belongs to a greater, and far more pressing, public debate about ideas and what to do with them, even what secret darkness might be lurking under what we’re repeatedly promised is really no big deal.
This most recent case has to do with one branch of the Christian nationalist movement. If you’ve avoided this controversy until now and need to catch up, and if my precis above has left you baffled, Rod Dreher’s reporting (here and here) will get you there. You could also check out Roberts’ initial piece and Neil Shenvi’s statement.
One of the many responses to the revelations, once they turned out to be true, was to criticize Alastair Roberts for not following the procedure of Matthew 18:
If your brother or sister sins, go and point out their fault, just between the two of you. If they listen to you, you have won them over. But if they will not listen, take one or two others along, so that ‘every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.’ If they still refuse to listen, tell it to the church; and if they refuse to listen even to the church, treat them as you would a pagan or a tax collector.
People have various principles that they have drawn from this idea. I’m quoting from a Twitter conversation, anonymized– there were many conversations along these lines:
A: “Broadcasting another Christian’s flaws did nothing for the Kingdom. Not sure how you can rationalize it but that’s between you and God.”
B: “What happened to “truth”?”
A: “Truth is good but needlessly propagating other people’s faults isn’t. A better solution would have been to contact him and encourage him to delete the posts.”
A comment on Roberts’s initial post read:
I once produced the same kind of dossier of evidence after I discovered someone having a secret thought crime persona online…I emailed him and showed him the evidence. He was terrified and repentant. Showing him this evidence let him know how easily his life could be destroyed and urged him to be a better man. He has since started behaving himself and now has a greater understanding that words have gravity.
Another tweet, which conceived of what had happened as a kind of “vigilante justice,” read:
Alastair had ZERO ecclesial authority over him. Dreher, Shenvi likewise. They’re operating extra-[church]-judicially, to this very minute. They’re not subjecting their actions to any sort of episcopacy or church courts structure.
This critique does not hold up. This is not primarily a matter of private sin. It is good that Achord has at least begun to take responsibility for his words and actions, and is seeking counsel and repentance. We can be deeply grateful for that, and we can and should pray for him. But we still need to understand what happened. His sin was not primarily something private.
Rather, Achord was speaking and publishing in public, as a would-be public intellectual. Wolfe’s book emphasizes strongly – it is one of its central points – that Christians, when they act in the public sphere, are not acting in the institutional Church: his version of the Two Kingdoms doctrine draws a sharp line of distinction between the sphere of authority of the minister and of the magistrate, the ecclesial and the civil sphere, and he seeks the greatest independence possible for the civil sphere from clerical interference. In my view, he goes overboard with this, but it is certainly true that when men enter the public sphere, they must be willing to operate by the standards of the public sphere, and not retreat to ecclesial proceduralism, inappropriately applied, as a means of avoiding responsibility.
Achord was seeking to spread his ideas about these subjects in public. Under his own name, he published a book on these topics, promoting segregation in schools; wrote essays for the website of the CiRCE Institute, a Classical Education organization; published seventy episodes of a political philosophy podcast, along with recommended reading lists that included explicitly white supremacist websites. Under the Aadland pseudonym, he published two articles on the topic with kinist websites, and under the Aadland pseud, he tweeted threads that he later developed more thoroughly into those articles. Many people with a public project who have a twitter account do this: workshopping ideas in public which they later develop into pieces. Neither his main nor his pseudonymous twitter account were set to private.
He was plainly seeking to enter the public forum. If you publish something in a magazine with a fairly transparent alias and then someone publishes another piece pointing out that it was you and taking an opposing stand on the matter on which you were seeking to have a public voice, that is not a violation of Matthew 18. It is simply acting in the public sphere, as is appropriate for those who seek to act in that sphere, to shape thought and eventually policy, rather than merely contenting themselves with private life.
When you publish something, in other words, it means just that: you have published it. You’ve made it public. That’s what magazines, even kinist webzines, are. That, in its own pathological little way, is what Twitter is, at least when you’re the non-private account of someone with a public project. And it can and should be taken up as a matter of public concern.
To fail to understand this is, frankly, to fail to understand the nature of public as opposed to private life, and the responsibilities it brings. One cannot hide behind the skirts of “it was private sin” when one has put forward ideas and writing publicly, seeking to shape public policy, education, and conversation.
The responses are troubling as well in what they reveal about their writers’ understanding of what the purpose and end of confrontation in sin would be, in any case. “To contact him and encourage him to delete the posts”? “He has since started behaving himself and now has a greater understanding that words have gravity”? Repentance isn’t learning that you have to cover your tracks better. It includes public confession to those you have wronged, and asking forgiveness.
The problem with Achord was not that he was tweeting “wrongthink.” It was that he was a part of a public project to try to mainstream a version of kinism, neo-segregationism and something like critical race theory for white people. He did all of this while participating in a public disavowal from that corner of Christian Nationalism that this element even existed and constituted a formative aspect of that part of the movement.
Is it legitimate to link Wolfe and Achord intellectually? After all, Wolfe claims to have had no idea about his friend’s Twitter alt or his racist views. Is this credible?
Obviously not. As Roberts demonstrated, Wolfe followed the alt account and interacted with it repeatedly, liking many of its tweets, although he unfollowed it as soon as the account was pointed out. By Achord’s Twitter friends’ own words, they all assumed, correctly, that the account was his. Wolfe and Achord shared an intellectual project for years. In addition to the podcast, Achord’s book, which contains the same content as the posts though in politer form, is cited and commended in Wolfe’s The Case for Christian Nationalism, and Wolfe recommended it on Twitter up to a few days before the whole debacle started.
And crucially, Wolfe uses the same “use critical race theory but for white people” argument that Achord used in the thread Roberts initially screenshotted and the article he originally linked to, for which the thread served apparently as a draft. He had adapted it to be about “his ethnicity,” the real American ethnicity whose members would know each other by instinct, but it was the same argument. That was why Roberts initially shared that thread in the context of the discussion of Wolfe’s book.
Let’s take a closer look at that. In the conclusion to Wolfe’s chapter on “Loving your Nation” – Chapter 3, which he has urged people to look to to understand his views on race and ethnicity in the midst of all this – he writes as follows (168-171):
The talk of ethnicity as something fundamental to everyday life makes many in the West, especially in America, very uncomfortable… Western man is enamored of his ideology of universality; it is the chief and only ground of his self-regard. His in-group is all people—it is a universal in-group. Everyone is an object of his beneficence. But in perverse fashion he is his own in-group’s out-group. The object of his regard is the non-Westerner at the Westerner’s expense—a bizarre self-denigration rooted in guilt and malaise. Loss and humiliation is the point, however. It is euphoric to him; his own degradation is thrilling. This is his psycho-sexual ethno-masochism, the most pernicious illness of the Western mind…
Repeatedly, in the face of ethnic identity politics, we see Western man retreating to this universality—to the universal values of the Declaration of Independence, for example—not realizing that these values come from the collective experience of a cluster of European nations. In this retreat, he perpetuates the conditions for ethnic identity politics… Since Western values lack universality in reality, equality is never achievable.
Most immigrants know this; they experience the non-universality of the West; they know the foolishness of Western claims of universality. Hence, identity politics has become a group strategy—an exploitation of the promise of Western values in order to secure group advantage in the face of unequal background conditions. This is why the rhetoric of “equity” requires institutions to actively discriminate against the “privileged.”
Most left-wing social movements exploit Western universality and Western guilt, leveraging the bizarre tendency of Western man to out-group himself. You would think that Western man would come to his senses. But universality is so ingrained in him and is so strongly enforced that he psychologically cannot reject it, even in the face of its absurdity…
Western man is trapped in a cycle of universality, unable to wake up into and embrace his own particularity. The Western mind needs to be critiqued in order to free it from exploitation and self-disparagement. The key is having the moral and psychological fortitude to endure the psychological discomfort that arises from affirming the truth and denying the false and absurd. Indeed, you must critique and deliberately decline to act on certain mental habits designed to extinguish this discomfort, such as accusations (whether against oneself or others) like “racist” or “fascist” or “xenophobe”; appeals to universality; and ascribing altruism.
This last one—altruism—refers to the Western assumption that all non-Western peoples in the West have universalistic aims, not ethno-centric ones. That is, we tend to impute Western altruism to all people, concluding that their first love is humanity, not their ethnicity. But this is obviously false and foolish. We must train the mind to resist the psychological inclination to affirm error. This is not the tug of conscience but a product of psycho-social conditioning, triggering discomfort and then a mental habit that returns us to the euphoria of fantasy and absurdity.
I say all this because, in my estimation, the primary obstacle for the embrace of nationalism is modern Western psychology. If you do not eradicate or suppress the habits of the mind that (at best) suppress natural aspirations for national greatness or (at worst) project your aspirations on the other (to whom you toss your national birthright), then you’ll never fully embrace nationalism; and ultimately your people will self-immolate in national suicide.
This is the argument that Wolfe uses as the conclusion of his chapter on Nation: this is what he means by the “nation” in Christian nation: the ethnos. This is the ethnos that Wolfe and Achord referred to in their podcast as “Heritage Americans.” In Roberts’ thread, he was building on a thread that his wife, Susannah Black Roberts, had done in response to Neil Shenvi’s review of the book. Both the review and Mrs. Roberts’ thread had described this argument of Wolfe’s as, essentially, critical race theory for… whatever Wolfe believes his ethnos to be: this is taking the strategies of CRT and saying “yes, let’s use that for ‘us.’”
Roberts’s tweet read as follows:
The concern @NeilShenvi raises here really is important. There is a sort of Christian Nationalism that is a sort of identity politics that self-consciously develops itself with CRT as its foil and mirror.
This is Stephen Wolfe's podcast cohost, Thomas Achord, on the subject. https://t.co/4MVHuvRdH8 pic.twitter.com/OV1fccyyjw
— Alastair Roberts (@zugzwanged) November 23, 2022
… And then he posted the tweets, which read as follows:
Roberts’s second tweet in the thread read as follows:
Achord (who principally tweets at @tristramrides right now), has developed this idea of 'white antifragility' and white identity consciousness-raising through exploitation of the mirror of CRT in an article on the 'Identity Dixie' site: https://t.co/spDEHg7pA3.
— Alastair Roberts (@zugzwanged) November 23, 2022
And he linked to the article, a cached version of which is here. The article is clearly a developed version of the Aadland tweet thread.
His final tweet in the thread read “It is quite possible that Wolfe (@PerfInjust) disagrees sharply with Achord on the identity of the ethnos on whose behalf they are working, but it would be a little surprising.”
One of the accusations leveled against Roberts was that, unable to deal with Wolfe’s book on the level of ideas, he was retreating to ad hominem attacks on an innocent bystander who posted “naughty” words. But Roberts’ wife had, just before the controversy began, published a detailed review dismantling Wolfe’s use of the natural law tradition, pointing out his surrender of that tradition’s idea of universal trans-ethnic ideals of justice and the good to a right-wing version of identity politics and CRT. She also gave a detailed explanation of how Wolfe’s selective quotation and mishandling of the tradition had led him to this position. Neil Shenvi had published another detailed review of the book highlighting this CRT aspect of Wolfe’s thought. And it was as a part of that conversation, precisely in the discussion of the ideas in Wolfe’s book, to show where such ideas had come from in Wolfe’s own thinking, and to point out their implications, that Roberts shared Achord’s thread. This wasn’t an attack on an innocent bystander in lieu of discussing Wolfe’s ideas. This was precisely what discussing those ideas looked like.
His purpose in the tweets was to bring in the published work of Wolfe’s collaborator in order to discuss the genealogy of the ideas in Wolfe’s book. He did not, in that thread, mention that the account was under a light pseudonym; he did not highlight the more egregiously racist tweets. He never contacted the school and it was not in Achord’s capacity as an educator that Roberts was bringing up his thread and article. It was not an attack on a friend to get to Wolfe. It was not, as Douglas Wilson has argued, an attempt to “take hostages to get Canon to pull the book.” Roberts did not seek to get Canon to pull the book. It was, rather, precisely the rigorous discussion of the book’s ideas which the publisher claimed to welcome. It was bringing his collaborator’s published work into conversation with Wolfe’s published work, as is entirely common in the public sphere. That’s how public discussion works. And that is how Achord originally responded, giving an interpretation of his own tweets and article.
It wasn’t about exposing a person, it was about discussing the genealogy of and implications of an idea. And indeed, it would be surprising if both these men, collaborating on a project, had come up with that argument independently and not in discussion with each other.
To read this situation as something like a confrontation with personal sin that should have been brought up with the sinner first and with his pastor next misunderstands the nature and norms of publishing and the public sphere. When you are, as Achord aspired to be, a public intellectual putting forward your ideas in public, they then are fair game to be held up to scrutiny. That he published the Identity Dixie piece under a pseudonym does not make it less of a magazine article, or less published. His book, published under his own name, and which Wolfe cited and promoted just days before the whole controversy began, contained material that would have been enough to get him fired had anyone in the school read it, according to Rod Dreher whose children had gone to the school and whose ex-wife taught there. No one in the school, apparently, had read it. He was a man who, along with Wolfe, was building a public presence in the Christian Nationalist space, publishing a book, articles, and seventy podcasts under his own name, and several articles under a light pseudonym, which also had a public Twitter account through which he advanced and workshopped various ideas in the space he and Wolfe were working in.
Is this the only time that Achord can be seen working with the ideas which made their way into Wolfe’s book? No. The discussion of the uniquely Western nature of the idea of universal values, which again is key to the conclusion of Wolfe’s chapter 3, was something that Achord was thinking about around the same time:
Wolfe saw and Liked this tweet:
Notably, it is his understanding of this idea from Duchesne – the idea that universal values of justice and a trans-ethnic ethic of the common good are just a Western fantasy- which Achord stated that he was most interested in bringing into the Classical/Christian Education Movement:
Such a belief would, of course, involve repudiating, and teaching children to repudiate, any classical form of natural law teaching, as expressed for example in C.S. Lewis’ idea of the Tao in his Abolition of Man. Of course, one can talk about Western habits of mind in a lightly-held sociological sense that is not philosophically a non-starter, though all such discussion involves generalization, as in Joseph Henrich’s WEIRD hypothesis. But that does not seem to be what this is. This goes beyond the claim (itself dubious in an age of globalization) that only Western liberals have a specifically Western liberal habit of mind. This is something that makes a much stronger ontological claim: non-Westerners never act on such ideas as universal justice or on any political principle other than the promotion of the interest of their own ethnicity; there is no real common ground; Westerners therefore cannot share political justice with non-Westerners, any such project is foolish. This version of the argument takes that so-called “Western” habit of mind and claims that there’s no truth in it at all, that Westerners themselves should shed all of their universalism – because it is entirely false – and adopt political ethnocentrism as their principle of thought and action.
There is, in this understanding of Duchesne’s argument, no trans-ethnic universal Tao on which basis humans of all races and kinds can recognize and act on universal goods of trans-ethnic political justice and loyalty towards the human race as well as loyalty towards their own families or people. That is a Western fantasy.
And this repudiation of universalism, claiming (in the face of all the universalist aspects of non-Western cultural ethics, as for example Lewis documented in the appendix to Abolition) that it is an exclusively Western thing which Westerners should stop affirming, is what Wolfe writes in the conclusion to his “Nation” chapter, as he calls for his readers to develop and act on ethnic consciousness, seeking primarily the political interest of their own ethnicity as opposed to an interethnic common good or a universal standard of justice, while suppressing their instincts to ascribe altruism to any non-Western people.
One need not conclude that these were originally Achord’s ideas. Most likely they were ideas which both men were developing together, in conversation and based on common reading and interpretation, as is common with intellectual partnerships. For what it’s worth, doesn’t entirely fit with much of the rest of Wolfe’s argument, which does lean on much more traditional natural law thinking, though a radically selective and misleading version of the tradition.
To think of showing the connections between these ideas as a violation of Matthew 18 is to fundamentally misunderstand the project of public debate, public-sphere work, and publishing in general. It is a basic axiom that if you throw your hat in the ring of publication and public debate, you can be held responsible for the ideas you are seeking to put forward. If you take part in an intellectual project, you must be prepared to have that project examined rigorously. It was in the context of rigorously examining Wolfe’s ideas and project that Achord’s part in that project and contributions to his ideas became relevant; there is no principle that I know of that would put Achord’s work off limits to such examination, once he has chosen to publish, to take part in public-sphere work alongside Wolfe.
Again, publishing under a light pseudonym does not mean that you are not publishing. Publishing under your own name but burying the segregationist parts of your book so that only careful readers will pick up on them doesn’t mean you are not publishing. If you take up the task of public speech, you must be prepared to own the consequences, and accept pushback on what you yourself have said.
And to not understand this is to misunderstand the whole episode. This is not a question of personal attack. Achord isn’t the target. Wolfe isn’t even the target. This is not a proxy war to take down Wolfe. This is not a war against men at all. This is a war to clarify ideas and their consequences, to define the nature of Christian political activity and to demand responsibility in the project of Christian political retrieval and public speech. Wolfe and Achord are co-belligerents on one side of the ongoing public discourse and debate about what Christian Nationalism will be, what it will stand for – and what Christian politics of any kind will look like. In which case, they comprise the equivalent of a common state in this conflict about ideas.
These ideas are poison to both secular and Christian understandings of politics, civil life, and justice – of natural law itself, embedded in every man and woman. They would rip apart the American body politic, and many friendships and families. They can’t be allowed to take hold. And that would be true even if Thomas Achord had never tweeted any crudely racist, as opposed to politely so, versions of his ideas.
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Everything you wrote is true, this time. It’s a bit surprising though coming from you. I guess you’ve changed some of your own views. Which is very good to see.
Very good. Wolfe and his circle of wink-wink-nod-nod definitely-not-white-nationalist-just-“ethnic”-nationalists need to be labeled what they are. They’re trying to push readers 90% of the way toward white nationalism with bad theology and distortions of Christian and classical thinkers, blowing up the particularist strains out of proportion and leaving out the more universal points.
Very good. Wolfe and his circle of wink-wink-nod-nod definitely-not-white-nationalist-just-“ethnic”-nationalists need to be labeled what they are. They’re trying to push readers 90% of the way toward white nationalism with bad theology and distortions of Christian and classical thinkers, blowing up the more particularist strains out of proportion and leaving out the more universal points.
Thank you for the detailed analysis, Jonathan. I find it quite helpful as one busy with end-of-semester duties.
On a personal note, please enjoy a warm meal at Baris for those of us not fortunate enough to live in the 254.
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